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Area's racial balance shifts

Within the next year, whites will no longer be the majority in OrangeCounty.

Mirroring a national trend in which minorities are becoming the majority,the racial balance in Orange County is poised to shift. U.S. census figuresout today show that in 2006, whites teetered at 50.2 percent of the county'spopulation.

"We've seen it coming; we've expected it. We are becoming more cosmopolitanas a community in part because of that change," said Linda Chapin, a formerOrange County mayor who now heads the Metropolitan Center for Regional Studiesat the University of Central Florida. "Certainly in public life we have talkedfor over a decade about the advantages of diversity."

In Osceola County, the shift is well under way, with minorities making up53 percent of the population. Just seven years ago, whites in Osceolacomposed 60 percent of the population. Now it joins five other Floridacounties where no racial group claims a majority.

The figures released today show that nearly one in 10 of the nation's 3,141counties has reached that demographic milestone.

While Osceola has seen an explosion in its Hispanic population, OrangeCounty's shift has been more diverse. In Orange, the Hispanic population hasgrown rapidly and the black population has seen moderate growth. And while thenumber of white residents is not shrinking, the group has grown at a muchslower pace.

More change projected

The Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Floridaestimates that Orange County will be 45.5 percent white in 2010 and 38.6percent in 2020.

The Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., president of the Orange branch of the NationalAssociation for the Advancement of Colored People, said that when minoritiesbecome the majority, the rules of the game change.

"You cannot ignore the demographics," Bracy said. "If I'm an adroit whitepolitician, you're going to have to find ways of interaction with people whoyou might not [have] heretofore interacted with."

Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez said a shift in numbers hasnot equated to a shift in power, noting that no Hispanics sit on the OrangeCounty School Board or Orlando City Council.

"That tells me we still have more work to do," Fernandez said. "You havethe numbers, but what really gives you power is money and politics."

William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said culturalclashes are more common in communities that have experienced the change in arelatively short period of time. He cites cities and counties in the Midwestthat experienced population declines and then an influx of immigrants, andSouthern counties that went from majority white to majority black in shortorder.

That has not been the case with Orange County, where the racial shift hasbeen gradual, he said.

The percentage of whites is decreasing across all Central Florida counties,but the shifts outside of Orange and Osceola are less dramatic. Brevard, Lake,Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties are still predominantly white, withgrowing Hispanic populations.

When George Rodon, Orange County's economic director, moved to the regionin the 1970s, his head would turn when someone spoke Spanish. Now, it iscommonplace. "It's a different Central Florida," he said.

The census figures out today are part of an annual release of populationdata and are based on estimates.

Heartland shifting as well

Nationally, the majority-minority shift hasn't occurred only in border orurbanized areas, said Robert Bernstein, a census spokesman. Counties passingthis threshold have included Denver County, Colo., and Blaine, Mont. Kansashas three counties where minorities outnumbered whites, Bernstein said.

Among the first urban areas to reach the minority-majority threshold wasWashington, D.C., which in 1960 was 45 percent white and 54 percent black.Los Angeles saw the shift in 1980s -- with 48 percent white.

Florida has six counties where minorities outnumber whites, includingMiami-Dade, where whites make up just 18 percent of the population, andGadsden, a Panhandle county where blacks make up 55 percent of thepopulation.

The Census Bureau projects the white majority nationwide will dwindle to50.1 percent in 2050.

Paul Saffo, a population analyst based in California, said that when theshift began in that state's Orange County, many whites "had their knickersin a twist." Now, he says, "Nobody is a majority. Everyone is a minority."

For some, the demographic shift can be uncomfortable.

For the first time in his life, Ed Nichols, a white, 47-year-old formerMarine who lives in Lake County and works in Orange, feels like a minority.He sees Puerto Rican flags flying. He goes to Publix and the customers in linespeak only Spanish.

"I've been called 'gringo' so many times, I find that offensive," saidNichols, who moved here seven years ago.

Lisa Cook, who moved to Orlando from Los Angeles in 2000, thinks OrangeCounty could use even more diversity.

She counts among her favorite places a Mexican-owned restaurant in WinterGarden, a Korean-owned sandwich shop in College Park and a Pakistani-owneddoughnut shop. But it still isn't enough. As the county's minority populationsgrow, she hopes to see them more integrated into the politics, culture andentertainment of Orlando.

"What I miss is the diversity and diverse cultures being part of the fabricof the city," said Cook, 50, a film-production instructor at UCF.

'A new, positive attitude'

That is the kind of place that Orlando is aspiring to be, said Chapin, theformer Orange mayor.

"There might have been a point where we could have gone the direction ofdivision or entrenchment. But we passed that point. I feel a new, positiveattitude in this community."

Babita Persaud can be reached at bpersaud@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6088. Jeff Kunerth can be reached at jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5392.

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